But what does “the land of the free” really mean? And in what sense are we free? The questions weren’t political for me this year but theological, because there’s a Declaration of Independence in the kingdom of God that was spoken by Christ himself, and it’s available for all people, all nations, for all eternity, without contingencies. So in the wake of the fireworks and hot dogs yesterday, and the expressions of gratitude for the unique gifts and strength of my nation, it’s important that we who follow Christ make a distinction between the political/philosophical freedom that defines are culture, and the freedom found in Christ. They’re vastly different, and to be blunt, one is more life giving, and thus more important, than the other.
He’s at a festival in the 8th chapter of John when he says, “you are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
A freedom tied to obedience
These simple words of Jesus reveal just how skewed modernity’s notion of freedom really is, for we live in time and place where our understanding of freedom is that it is absolute. As Tim Keller writes, “(the modern notion of freedom) goes beyond the Bible’s once-revolutionary conception of freedom. Freedom of choice without limits has become almost sacred.” Philosophers call this “negative freedom” because they’re saying that the highest good is that “nobody can tell you what to do or how to live your life”. The “nobody” in that sentence is what makes this “negative” freedom. There is no authority other than you – what’s right for you, what works for you – you should be free to choose it, and anyone who stands in your way of your pursuit of either an abortion or an assault rifle, an open marriage or a life where sex is nothing more than recreation – anyone who stands in your way is an enemy of freedom.
What a contrast to the freedom offered in Christ, who says that our experience of freedom is contingent upon remaining faithful to his teaching. We’re so saturated with our post modern notions of freedom that any sentence tying freedom to obedience seems contradictory, maybe even wrong. If I must do some things and avoid others, in what sense am I free?
Jesus would say that this kind of obedience frees me to live the life for which I’m created – a life which, though never perfect, is enjoying a trajectory of transformation that increasingly saturates our entire beings with joy, hope, peace, mercy, strength, wisdom, hope, and love. We’re granted the freedom to become the people God had in mind when God created us, free to pursue our truest destiny. This not only sounds appealing to me, this freedom, even on fireworks day, is my most important pursuit.
I hope we who follow Christ don’t confuse nationalistic and philosophical freedoms with the freedom Christ offers. They’re two very different things and the “O” word that Jesus ties to freedom is obedience, so if you want to celebrate positive freedom, start there.
A freedom tied to external revelation
One of the challenges with our nationalistic, post modern notion of freedom is that we try to say that it can be entirely self-constructed. “If you want to own a gun, own a gun. If you want an abortion in the 8th month, have an abortion. If you want to define marriage on your own, define marriage on your own.” What we are trying to say is that “every person can do what’s right in their own eyes” and all will be well for everyone. Of course, this doesn’t really work because there’s a chance your freedom might infringe on my freedom or well-being. What if you want my wife? Or my children? Or my stuff?
So we’re quick to add that we’re only free “as long as others aren’t harmed”
Ah, but there’s the problem. One man says that his use of pornography isn’t harming anyone. Others don’t agree, stating that his own psychic well being, not to mention the lives of those involved in the industry he supports, not to mention his capacity for genuine rather than pixalated intimacy, not to mention his erectile dysfunction problems – all these are things are cited by some as reasons why his little hobby isn’t just between him, his hand, and his server. But he disagrees, citing freedom as his basis as he closes the door.
The same thing happens when you try talk to people about the difficulties that accrue to the whole society when sex is divorced from the covenant of marriage. Try tying the numerous male crises addressed in “the demise of guys” with the sexual ethic prevailing today and people cry foul. “Two consenting adults” is the preface intended to silence all arguments, which is a way of saying, “we’ll be arbiters of what’s good and acceptable for us – you choose what works for you” Or, if you’re conservative and are cheering just now on the sexual front, when someone suggests that it might not be in the best interests of the larger global and environmental community for you to buy the cheapest possible goods, or generate two tons of garbage a year, you’ll cry foul, shouting that nobody has the right to infringe on my freedom. Or maybe someone suggests that we should start monitoring sugary sodas the way we monitor cigarettes, because you know, the adult diabetes thing is an epidemic now and we’re all paying for it.
Simple right? We’re all free. Yes, free. And lonely; addicted; anxious; destroying the planet; destroying the middle class; terrified of terror; eroding any sense of community as we clamor to worship at the idol of individual freedom. How’s this working for us? Not so well, I’d argue.
What’s more, the notion that each of us are out there autonomously determining “what’s right for me” is, to put it mildly, a joke. Our culture creates what I call “value freeways” that are loud, fast, easy, and appealing. My culture in Seattle is different than yours in Uganda, but wherever you live, there are freeways with easy on ramps. Freedom? Maybe between two or three on ramps, especially if you then make a tribe out of the people with you on your freeway. That’s not real freedom, it’s cultural conformity.
Jesus, in contrast, suggests that the real and truest freedom only comes as a byproduct of “knowing the truth” and the definite article in that sentence is gigantic because it implies that there’s a single North Star, a single reference point, a single truth, and that it is, at least in some measure, knowable. Truth is out there and real freedom comes to those who seek not what’s “right for me” or what’s “culturally popular”, but what Jesus calls me to do in any given moment or situation.
In the midst of that pursuit, Jesus promises that the truth will set me free – free from fear, addiction, isolation, greed, lust, pride, hate, and o so much more. But it all starts, paradoxically, by my admitting that I’m not free to choose my own way.
The Illusion of Freedom
When Jesus offers freedom to the crowd in John 8, they say, “We are Abraham’s children. We have never been anyone’s slaves…” In other words, “Why would we want your offer of freedom, since we’re already free and have always been free?” I laugh at this point when reading, because they are presently occupied by Rome. Before that it was Greece. Before that it was the Medo-Persian empire. Before that it was Babylon. Before that it was Assyria. Slavery had become so normal that they’d confused it for freedom.
We’re free too, as our fireworks, weapons, and autonomous moralities remind us every day.
But we’re angry; overeating; overspending; anxious; undersleeping; addicted; lonely; and afraid that the whole house of cards that is our economy will come crashing down if people stop buying stuff they don’t need. This is the fruit of the freedom to do anything we want, “as long as nobody gets hurt”. And while it’s better than totalitarianism and thought police by light years – it’s not enough. Real freedom requires obedience to an external authority. That there is One, that he’s knowable, and gracious, and has our best interests in mind – these are things worth celebrating every single day.
“If the son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed”